Dignity and Dependence

What gives a person value? Although if faced with the question, most of us are unlikely to deny a person at least some measure of innate value, we often deny them this value by our actions, words and thoughts. We make determinations about whether a person is deserving of “respect.” We constantly form internal (or external) judgements, labelling the people we know or even (more frequently) the people we do not, as “bad,” “pathetic,” in some way “less.”

Where do these judgements come from, these evaluations of human worth? Because that is indeed what we are doing: evaluating someone or something. Yet there is an essential distinction to be made here. Evaluating an act, a choice or a set of values is different from evaluating a person. Of course if we neglect or refuse to make this distinction between “right” and “wrong,” we stray down the dangerous path of relativity, defining truth as whatever feels good, rather than Truth with a capital “T.” But while judging an act and deciding that it is not “right” or does not reflect the Truth for which humans were intended holds the person accountable for their actions, it does not strip them of their fundamental dignity.

More often than not, when we judge a person, we are judging them for their choices. We make determinations about whether a choice was proper, or ill-conceived and misguided. If this evaluation is transferred to the very being of a person, then we begin to define people only by their choices, by the things that they are doing. This leads to the glorification of choice- the almighty Choice- and the definition of freedom as that which is untethered from all objective Truth. From here we begin to praise the “self-made man” as the highest and most worthy of individuals. The person who is “good” and deserving of respect is then the person who has earned it through their choices. Such a limiting view of the individual tramples on the idea of grace as a free gift. Those who are weak or dependent, those who are needy (mentally, physically, spiritually) are that way because they have not earned or worked hard enough for the fruits of labour. Confined to this understanding, anyone viewed as weak in any way can be judged for their weakness, can be condemned for their choices. Love and respect devolve from their true forms into entities that must be earned before they are given; thus they are not gifts but exchanges, transactions. They become mere commodities.

Yet this understanding of love, dignity and the human person is fundamentally false and supremely inadequate. The worth of a person is not determined by their measure of self-sufficiency. If this were the case, then we would all possess (or lack) value based on the amount of control we have “earned” or can exert over our lives. Since control is ever-tenuous and we all face different circumstances and unseen individual struggles, we will inevitably have times when the illusion of control is strong and times when it is torn away. If we put our faith in the ideal of control and of the “self-made man,” we miss what is most uniquely human and good about each person. Instead, we judge others around us, and in turn ourselves, according to something which is not ultimately our own (control and circumstances).

This is not the mark of a good person and it is not a standard by which to judge who is deserving of love, grace and respect. Such a standard would exclude every one of us from the passing ranks at various times in our lives. Rather, in recognizing the innate beauty and dignity of each person and attributing correctly its source to God, the designer of all life, we begin to appreciate our deep need for our Creator. When we can understand and embrace this need, rather than struggling against it with an injured ego and in search of personal glory, we will grow humbly in goodness and truth.

The lie is that to be independent, to be able to control your own life without any need for others, is what makes a person good and worthy. Need does not weaken, nor does a lack of control. Rather, the acceptance of our powerlessness and a willingness to depend on others lead us to see and realize what is most fully human and beautiful in ourselves. To be “weak,” rejected, judged or misunderstood does not demean or detract from the inherent dignity of a person. Cut off from the quest for external affirmation, such a person can discover the root of their dignity in the unchanging presence of God and the deep and universal need for Him.

Feelings of superiority that lift us above others and seem to stifle our personal fears and insecurities are replaced by a vulnerable trust in and communion with other people. We see in them a love desirous to give of itself, and also a desire to receive that same love. In short, we see what is most fundamentally true about our own selves, and perceive a profound equality in this kinship. Such an equality is not oppressive, nor does it belittle unique gifts and achievements. Instead it opens us more fully to other people and to ourselves. In the deep, unwavering assurance of equality, love and dignity (which we do not need to earn or maintain), we are truly free, and the world around us begins to become more beautiful, little by little, with this new understanding and way of living.